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AT HOME WITH SISTER CLARE

 
May 9, 2002

LEVERETT - The day starts an hour before dawn for Sister Clare Carter, Brother Kato Gyoweigh, and Brother Toby Keyes. They gather to pray in front of an elaborate altar that extends out from an entire wall of the biggest room in their home, a converted barn near the top of a mountain here.

By the time the sun reaches the horizon, they have taken their ritual walk, banging on drums, and made their way to the summit and the white-domed pagoda of which they are the custodians.

"I must confess, sometimes the sun is a little bit up by the time we get to the pagoda," said Carter.

Carter, 51, is a West Roxbury native who was raised Catholic. She was ordained as a monk in the Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist order in 1981. Kato, 61, a native of Japan, has been a monk in the order since 1973. Keyes, 53, became a monk last month.

Known around the Pioneer Valley simply as The Peace Pagoda, the large, hemispherical shrine is visible for many miles and attracts visitors of many spiritual predilections. A bronze mandala sits atop the dome and concrete lotus petals around the edge channel rainwater into a reflecting pond that harbors a cacophonous army of bullfrogs.

Below the lotus petals, twin staircases ascend to a walkway around the pagoda, which leads past four alcoves with statues depicting the life of the Buddha.

Kato's days are devoted, in part, to constructing a permanent dojo. The Japanese word refers to "a place to practice." The elegant structure taking shape next to the pagoda will replace the erstwhile barn where the monks now live.

When he isn't building, Kato spends most of his time in the prayer room, or hondo, reading about current events, studying spiritual texts, and corresponding with other members of the order around the world.

The Nipponzan Myohoji order claims a special role in promoting peace and opposing nuclear weapons. The founder, Fujii Guruji, was born on Aug. 6, 1885. Members of the order see special significance in the fact that the nuclear age began with the bombing of Hiroshima on Guruji's 60th birthday. He lived to be 99.

Ordination in the order, which has about 150 monks worldwide and which maintains pagodas in countries including Japan, England, Sri Lanka, India, and Nepal, means accepting celibacy and a vow of poverty.

The Leverett Peace Pagoda was built on 35 donated acres. Carter, Kato, and Keyes live entirely off of donated food and money. They avoid growing food in the gardens they tend, preferring, instead, to raise flowers. "The idea is not to be self-sufficient," but to interact with the larger community, said Carter.

They place the food they buy or that is given to them on the prayer room altar for a period of some days before they consume it. Twenty-five-pound bags of rice, packages of dried mushrooms, fruit, linguini noodles, coffee, a bar of Toblerone chocolate, and even some tobacco used in rituals inspired by Native Americans were recently spread out among the icons on the altar.

An important part of the Nipponzan Myohoji practices are walks devoted to achieving world peace. These walks can extend over periods of many months and over entire continents. Members of the order have organized walks from Auschwitz to Hiroshima, across North America, and from Leverett to Cape Town.

Carter, who grew up Catholic, first heard about the Nipponzan Myohoji order during a 1977 peace vigil in front of Faneuil Hall, four years before she was ordained.

"Devoting oneself to Buddhism does not mean renouncing other religions," she said. "I was raised a certain way and that remains inside me. But I am definitely a Buddhist monk, there's nothing unclear about that."

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

(413) 835-1248 - eric.goldscheider@gmail.com